Israel and human rights: voice and silence

A series of legislative measures in Israel will further constrain Israel’s beleaguered human-rights groups. A proposed commission to monitor their work highlights the real motive behind these efforts, say Lisa Magarrell & Iain Levine.

At the height of McCarthyism in America in the 1950s, the great news broadcaster Edward R Murrow said: “If none of us ever read a book that was ‘dangerous’, nor had a friend who was ‘different’, or never joined an organisation that advocated ‘change,’ we would all be just the kind of people Joe McCarthy wants.” The way Israel’s parliament is acting these days suggests that some of its lawmakers want the same “kind of people” as the country’s citizens. 

Over the past year, human-rights activists in Israel have taken a battering at the hands of their elected officials. More than a dozen bills whose effect would be to infringe democracy and free speech are floating around the Knesset: they include efforts to ban Palestinian citizens from commemorating their displacement in 1948, require loyalty oaths from non-Jews seeking Israeli citizenship, and prosecute organisations whose material is used as the basis for a boycott of Israeli settlements. A further such setback is a proposed “commission of inquiry” that is designed to cripple Israel’s human-rights groups under the pretext of supporting fiscal transparency.

The commission would investigate the funding of organisations that report on human-rights violations perpetrated by members of the Israeli military. But if transparency in funding were the real issue, there would be no need to form a commission. Human-rights groups in Israel have never questioned the importance of fiscal transparency. They list donors on their websites, deliver full annual reports to tax authorities and other governmental agencies, and often itemise their funders in the very reports whose criticism so offends the commission's sponsors.

In any event the stance of the commission’s main proponent, Faina Kirshenbaum indicates that the proposed body makes no pretense of being objective. Kirshenbaum accuses the targeted organisations of trying to delegitimise Israel. “These groups provide material to the Goldstone commission [which investigated violations committed during the Gaza conflict of 2008-09] and are behind the indictments lodged against Israeli officers and officials around the world”, she said. The implication is that the commission’s real aim is to silence criticism.

This is but the latest instance of official pressure that Israel’s non-governmental organisations are facing. A "foreign funding" bill passed by the Knesset on 21 February 2011 would mire NGOs in so much bureaucracy that their real work would grind to a halt, and other stifling legislation seeks to ban these groups from activities such as reporting on war crimes. The result of such measures would be that NGOs will be forced to squander their resources on navigating bureaucratic obstacles or fighting criminal charges, thus making it very hard for them to focus on the core tasks of monitoring and reporting on human-rights violations. This seems to be exactly what the commission’s supporters want.

A democratic call

The dangers to Israeli democracy inherent in this range of legislation are clear. A vital role of human-rights organisations in any society is, to adopt a phrase by Michael Ignatieff, to narrow the range of permissible lies. When Israeli human-rights organisations work to document violations by all sides of a conflict, they are carving out a space for truth in the face of official denials and justifications. They are helping to ensure that no one - be it a state official or a member of an armed group - is above the law.

The initial approval of the “commission of inquiry” on 5 January 2011 provoked a sharp - and much-needed - outcry. After Israel legislators endorsed the motion to create the body (by 41-16 votes), thousands of Israelis took to the streets of Tel Aviv in protest. Even the country’s president, Shimon Peres, joined the growing chorus of voices against it. “The investigation of organisations and foundations, whether from the left or right, must be left to law enforcement authorities”, Peres said. “The establishment of such a parliamentary investigative committee harms Israeli democracy and is unnecessary.”

Israel’s human-rights organisations already face severe constraints on their work in pursuit of truth and accountability. It is time for Israel's lawmakers to heed the call that Murrow made, a call that helped shake the United States awake from a nightmare of witch-hunts and ruined lives. “Just once in a while”, Murrow said, “let us exalt the importance of ideas and information.”

About the authors

Iain Levine is deputy executive director, programme, at Human Rights Watchoverseeing the organization's research and reporting work. Levine's field experience includes more than 10 years in Sudan and Mozambique working on humanitarian programs with particular emphasis on protection of children and other civilians. He has also worked as Amnesty International's representative at the United Nations and UNICEF's chief of humanitarian policy and advocacy. He is a graduate of Hull University and the London School of Economics.